sara farb and evan alexander smith
According to an essay that David Rhymer wrote in the Winter/Spring 2010 Issue of WORKS the journal of Canadian Theatre presented by the SummerWorks Theatre Festival, a few years ago he was invited to be a panellist at a Playwright’s Guild of Canada symposium entitled “Why Can’t Canadians write successful musicals?” In his essay “Kleenex™ vs. Tissue” Rhymer argues that the issue is not that Canadians cannot write successful musicals, but that often because our musicals do not fit a familiar and traditional American formula that theatre producers, practitioners and audience members often have difficulty recognizing them as belonging to the genre of musical theatre. While I understand Rhymer’s point and I celebrate Canadians having their own unique style of musical, I also propose that Canadians are just as proficient at writing in exactly the same style of musical that has been churned out of New York for the last one hundred and twenty years.
The Subway Songs, a song cycle written by the young Canadian composing team of Colleen Dauncey and Akiva Romer-Segal, which I had the pleasure of seeing in a Canadian Actors’ Equity Association approved Co-op on June 22nd at the Bread and Circus Theatre, is a perfect example. Since Jason Robert Brown’s iconic Songs for a New World (1995), a production which sits on the boundary between being a musical and a song cycle featuring songs connected by a unifying theme rather than a narrative, this formula has become prevalent among contemporary American and Canadian composers. The Subway Songs, as the title suggests, is a collection of songs that explore the unique characters and situations that one may encounter on a subway in the city during the morning commute and at rush hour.
The songs Dauncey and Romer-Segal have written are sophisticated and professionally polished. Dauncey’s music is a nice mixture of musical theatre and rock n’ roll with some powerful four-part harmony, while Romer-Segal’s lyrics have tight, clever rhymes by times reminiscent of the work of Stephen Sondheim. Some of the songs explore a specific theme, such as “The Subway Has Everything,” a love letter to the train from a quirky woman who takes transit to feel less alone in the world. Others, such as “Walk of Shame” and “Better Off,” tell an entire story arc, both of which start out as hilariously urbane tunes that then derail into more serious territory and reflect the complex inner issues and turmoil that exists beneath the facade of cell phones, IPods and attitude that so many of us adopt in public places. Then there is “Field Trip,” an unexpected exuberantly, joyful song that bursts out of the end of the First Act, which is an absolute delight.
The cast that was assembled for this Co-op was absolutely ideal and I hope that when this song cycle receives a full production that it will be these four brilliant performers who will be the inaugural cast. “Walk of Shame” has been tailor made to suit Sara Farb’s voice and belting prowess and it shows. The song is the story of a hung over girl, clearly in a destructive drinking cycle, desperate to piece together the details of the night before. Farb begins with her signature apathetic causticity, which always inspires a laugh, but she also reveals an endearing gentleness to this girl which melts the pretence with an adorable sheepish smile. I was also thrilled with the opportunity to hear Farb sing in the higher registers of her voice with “Stepping Stone” which allowed her voice to soar through the theatre with simple, pure, loveliness. Similarly, Evan Alexander Smith showed off his epic patter proficiency and his ability to break an audience’s heart with “Better Off,” which vocalizes the concerns of a man about to become a Dad, and then his voice is allowed to soar beautifully in the lovely “Far As The Eye Can See,” a poetic song about what happens when your dreams grow too big for your hometown, which I think a lot of people in Toronto can immediately relate to.
Dauncey and Romer-Segal give Sharron Matthews and George Masswohl one of the cutest musical theatre boy-meets-girl duets in the universe entitled “Figure You Out.” They performed it with so much geeky, awkward, adorableness I thought my heart was going to explode. Masswohl also sang a haunting song as a homeless man entitled “Someone Like Me,” which suited both his gorgeous voice and his rich, natural acting ability. The song finds a nice balance at being socially conscious without being didactic. He then gets a hilarious dancing song “Let it Show,” which I appreciated so much because I think that because of his deep, beautiful, resounding voice, he is so often seen as playing dark, broody, complex, often epic roles, and audiences more seldom get to appreciate the fact that he has shrewd comic timing as well. Sharron Matthews brings so much emotion to everything she sings and her two solo songs, “The Subway Has Everything” and “Can You Hear Me” both teem with genuine, heartfelt feeling and allow for the beauty in Matthews’ voice to envelope the whole room.
As a song cycle, The Subway Songs is a polished piece ready to be professionally produced. The music is immediate and assessable, while being original and sophisticated. It seems like the perfect choice for a company like Acting Up Stage or Angelwalk Theatre that produce contemporary musical theatre, especially since this show is Canadian.
In his article David Rhymer says, playing devil’s advocate, “Maybe Canadian composers just don’t have what it takes. After all where was our Oklahoma!? Where was our Guys and Dolls—our West Side Story?” I would argue that it is not that these musicals are not being written, nor that our composers are incapable of writing them, but that we are not looking hard enough to find them, to nurture them and to bring them into our mainstream theatres. The Drowsy Chaperone, a show I adore, is always touted as being proof that Canadian Producers will find and will support small indigenous shows if they show potential. This argument has always seemed so absurd to me because, despite its humble beginnings, The Drowsy Chaperone was conceived with the talents of Bob Martin (Puppets Who Kill, Slings and Arrows) and iconic Canadian film director Don McKellar. This show, it seems to me, is the Canadian equivalent of Larry David and Sam Mendes teaming up and writing a musical. It’s wonderful and inspiring that it’s become so successful, but is it really paving the way for the young and unknown talents in this city to follow in their footsteps?
If you venture into the Bread and Circus, if you attend Scriptlab’s Sing and Tells, if you scout out the Fringe Festivals across the country and SummerWorks’ Musical Works, as some Canadian producers do, that is where composers like Akiva Romer-Segal and Colleen Dauncey are debuting Canadian musical theatre that can hold its own against anything that’s being churned out of America. It’s not a question of “can we write this?” but of “when will the largest theatres in the country realize the wealth of talent sitting right under their noses?” Now/Later/Soon?